Having a hometown hockey club is a truly Canadian tradition, with communities across the country headed to rinks nearly every weekend to watch their teams play their rivals.
And hopefully, win.
In White Rock and Surrey, that team is the British Columbia Hockey League’s Junior A Surrey Eagles, whose home arena – one of only two Olympic-sized arenas in the Lower Mainland – is located in South Surrey.
Since purchasing the team from former owner Chuck Westgard last May, farming brothers Ron and TJ Brar have been focused on building it into much more than a hockey club and making it an integral part of the community.
“When TJ and I first got the team, we kind of thought we knew what we were getting into,” Ron Brar said, sitting in a chair in the locker room he and his brother renovated, adding a weight room and a players lounge, among other improvements.
“But we had no idea,” he confessed, with a grin.
If anything, it has been better than they could have imagined.
“We’ve got an incredible team! It’s a thrill to own this team and also to see all the young kids who want to be a part of the organization – it’s connecting the community in a way I don’t think anyone else can,” Brar said.
“It’s been an amazing team and vision, on and off the ice… off the ice is probably as important to us (as on).”
While the goals and scores and statistics and standing all still matter, Brar says it’s seeing how the community has embraced and come together through the team and its many initiatives throughout the year.
The team helps stimulate the local economy by hosting prospect camps and showcases as well as BCHL home games, and creates inclusive volunteer opportunities for a wide variety of people, Brar said.
Their off-ice efforts with charitable groups and non-profit organizations include BC Children’s Hospital, Surrey Memorial Hospital (Teddy Bear Toss), Christmas hampers that support local non-profit organizations, and volunteering time at non-profit fundraisers.
Players mentor young children in the community by visiting local schools, attending local sports and team practices, helping minor hockey associations and participating in community events, Brar noted.
The club also works closely with Kids Play Foundation, a non-profit organization working towards keeping kids away from the lifestyle of drugs, gangs, and violence started in B.C. by law enforcement officer Kal Dosanjh, that has expanded to operate in Alberta, Ontario and internationally in Punjab, India and Colombia.
The four pillars the Brars and the team embrace (that are also on the walls of the locker room) are Athletics, Academics, Community and Courage – but they don’t necessarily have to be in that order, Brar said.
“It’s creating leaders in the future. It’s a celebration of sports and academic as it caters to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association),” he said, noting his own daughter, Saje, who successfully parlayed her skills on the soccer pitch into a scholarship to Yale University.
Now the Eagles’ director of operations, she knows her own personal experience as a student athlete is an asset, as she has experienced it firsthand.
“(When players leave), they’re not just leaving as better hockey players, they’re better leaders and better members of the community,” she said.
Indeed, eight Eagles players garnered NCAA scholarships in the 2021-2022 season.
“We’re so proud of what the Eagles have accomplished,” Brar said, noting they still want to be as involved in the community as they can.
“Now we’re hoping to bang our drums loud enough. We want to build minor hockey bigger and greater,” said Brar.
“We want to get young athletes playing and not quitting at an early age.”
Focusing on at-risk youth and people who are new to the country are areas they want to target moving forward, Brar said, as well as perhaps, having players help coach and train teams formed through local organizations helping those with drug and addiction issues.
With several big games coming up – Feb. 3 against the BCHL-leading Penticton Vees is a huge one, and then against the Coquitlam Express Feb. 5 – the Feb. 5 game will also be a celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year, complete with a specially designed jersey and uniform, and on Feb. 10, when they play Victoria, there will be special attention paid to Westgard, who will be there with his family.
“We’re actually dedicating one of our games to Chuck – we were really fortunate to have him, he helped us transition,” said Brar. “We are forever grateful to Chuck. He got the team through COVID and so much more.”
They’re hopeful the Feb. 5 game, when the Chinese Lunar New Year will be highlighted, will be as popular as Punjabi night, which saw them selling standing room only.
“The players notice it too – it does make an impact when there’s a packed house,” Saje noted.
Having such a great team doesn’t happen all alone, Brar was quick to note.
“It takes a village… we want to thank everyone in the community – from our sponsors and partners to the fans the volunteers, the billets, the parents who’ve raised these amazing kids – they’re all good friends and teammates and their parents should be proud of who they’ve raised,” he said.
Saje noted community sponsors help the team ensure nothing slips through the cracks, and are the reason many people can come to Eagles games for free, from veterans to entire schools.
“Our sponsors have been absolutely amazing this year,” Brar said, noting more than 12 entire schools were able to attend Eagles games because of the generosity of the team’s sponsors.
Of course, winning the BCHL championship – the Fred Page Cup – would be the best-case scenario, he said, noting the Feb. 3 game is against the 2022 cup-winning team, the Vees.
“We’ve had an incredible response from this city. It’s been absolutely outstanding.”
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